The Independent Newsweekly
|At war: Commentary|
Issue Date: April 11, 2003
Pause and reflect
False reports from Iraq undermine confidence in government and media
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
If the first war week was one of shock, awe, and a bad day, the last few days have forced both the military and the nation to -- borrowing two words from the headlines in The New York Times -- pause and reflect.
March 27, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of the Army forces in the Persian Gulf, told Times reporter Jim Dwyer, The enemy were fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against, because of these paramilitary forces. We knew they were here, but we did not know how they could fight. Then he added the phrase that sent the willies through the media and the administration: Weve got to take this pause.
He was acknowledging what others had felt for days: The stretched-out supply lines, the unexpected sand storms, the refusal of the citizens of Basra (which we had decided for a while to bypass) and Baghdad to welcome their would-be liberators with open arms, the Iraqi shift to guerrilla tactics, the slowness in setting up a second front in the North, and the rising toll of civilian dead in Baghdad where two missiles had smashed into marketplaces -- all suggested that perhaps the Pentagon had made some mistakes.
A string of false reports during the week undermined public confidence in both the media and the government. At the same time, with 750 reporters embedded in the American and British forces, satellite technology that puts a live battle on TV screens all over the world, and instant analysis from a gaggle of retired generals ensconced in front of wall maps in network studios in New York, Washington and London, this is the most reported -- if not the most understood -- war in history.
But, as the Manchester Guardian (March 29) made its list, some reports didnt hold up.
The administration response, as usual, has been to equip Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with his bulletproof vest, headgear, ear plugs and boxing gloves and embed him in the Sunday morning TV news shows -- on ABCs This Week and on Fox, and with surrogates Gen. Richard Myers and Sen. John McCain on NBCs Meet the Press -- to assure us that everything was going according to plan.
Though they had a plan that was working, they had no timetable, and, though Vice President Dick Cheney had predicted the war would take weeks rather than months and that the streets of Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy, neither Rumsfeld nor the generals would speculate March 30 on how long the war would last.
Rumsfelds theme in several interviews has been that the Iraqis are prevailing only because they play dirty. Again and again he called Iraqis terrorists, although the definition of terror is a random attack on innocent civilians to provoke fear, and he has juiced up his arguments with atrocity stories: Iraqi militia cut out the tongue of an opposition member and let him bleed to death on a Baghdad street; when an Iraqi commander hesitated to fight, his head was chopped off and paraded around the city on a pole.
The New York Daily News reported that Iraqis were forced to fight lest their children be killed.
Its tabloid rival, the New York Post, went them one better with a Page One headline: Saddams Evil Order to Kids: Fight or Your Parents Die. HOW LOW CAN IRAQ SINK?
According to one report, foreign infiltrators were caught crossing the Mexican border and were headed for President Bushs Texas ranch. Their obvious intent: assassinate our president!
In his 1943 essay, Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell says there are two things to remember about atrocity stories. First, atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on the grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves those of his own side. Second, The truth is that they happen.
But we should examine them all. In the March 30 Times, in a story on the distance between expectations and what really happens, Jim Dwyer observes that American military officials have suggested that the resistance can be explained by saying that many Iraqis have been coerced into their roles by loyalists of the Hussein government; so far, there has been little independent corroboration of this analysis.
Rumsfeld rightly depicts decapitation as a horrid act. Yet his people re-coined the word decapitation as good, when it applied to cutting off the heads of Saddam and his officers in our first week assassination try.
The border-jumping assassins arrested on the way to Bushs ranch have been caught. But would their killing our president be a violation of U.S. or international law? Bush signed the order to assassinate Saddam. Does not a standard (Emmanuel Kant) moral principle demand that a law for one must be applicable to all? How could we complain?
Finally we must consider what the morality of this war is doing to the moral sensibilities of our troops. If we claim the high ground we must hold it by not excusing behavior by our men that we would foam at the mouth over if the enemy behaved the same way.
In a beautiful Page One juxtaposition of two stories, The New York Times March 29 interviewed two young men on how they felt about killing. In one, by Dexter Filkins, a sergeant says, We had a great day. We killed a lot of people. We dropped a few civilians, but what do you do? When our soldier saw one Iraqi soldier surrounded by 25 women and children, he didnt shoot. When he saw an Iraqi soldier with two or three civilians, he and his men opened fire. A nearby woman went down. Im sorry, he says. But the chick was in the way.
In the other story, by Steven Lee Myers, a sergeant agonizes over the same kind of situation: I have my wife and kids to go back to. I dont want them to think Im a killer. Like General Wallace, he said, I expected a lot more people to surrender. They did not. So he had to fire his weapons as Iraqis attacked headlong into the cutting fire of the tanks. Im a Christian man, he said. If I have to kill the other guy, I will, but it doesnt make me a hero.
The brigades chief chaplain, a Mennonite,
says, Were in the thousands now that were killed in the last few
days. Nothing prepares you to kill another human being, to cut someone in two.
. . . It bothers them to take
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is Jesuit Community professor of the Humanities at St. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J.
National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 2003
|Copyright © The
National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd.,
Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL: 816-531-0538 FAX: 1-816-968-2280 Send comments about this Web site to: firstname.lastname@example.org